Women are especially vulnerable to being victimized, and often when they are arrested and end up incarcerated, it is after a long history of abuse and trauma. Nearly 86 percent of women incarcerated are victims of prior sexual abuse and gender violence, and two-thirds are mothers of children under eighteen.
One-third of the world’s women prisoners are locked up in the US, even though they make up just 4 percent of the world’s female population. Pennsylvania’s incarceration rate for women and girls exceeds that of every other nation.
According to the Philadelphia Justice Project, 229,053 women were held in US prisons and jails, making up 10 percent of the people incarcerated in the United States; nearly half are held in county jails.
Fewer women are incarcerated than their male counterparts, but that gap is closing with every passing year. In 2019, law enforcement arrested 142,321 girls under 18, representing 30 percent of all youth arrests. Most of those arrests were for drug and property crimes, the same thing most of their adult counterparts were being arrested for, representing a dissolution of the disparity between male and female arrests.
As of July 13, 2023, three hundred and twenty-three women are being held in two Philadelphia prisons, the majority at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center (PICC).
According to a recent report by the PA Prison Society, incarcerated people have consistently reported being confined to their cells for days and being allowed out only infrequently and irregularly. Most said the time allowed out of their cells was short, and access to the outside was infrequent.
“I was locked down for five days straight, without a shower, phone calls, or anything,” said Ebony Chambers, who was recently released from PICC on her own recognizance for a warrant from 2020, she says she had no knowledge of. Her son Rashaan Chambers died while incarcerated at CFCF in April 2021 because staff failed to get him timely medical attention; he was only 22.
“I wasn’t even allowed a phone call during my intake; my family didn’t even know where I was most of the time I was locked up. They said it was because those two inmates on the male side escaped, but I think that was just an excuse, a lot of times, there weren’t any C/Os (corrections officers) on the block. They were rarely there in the evening or on the weekends.”
“We weren’t even allowed out of our cells on Mother’s Day; none of us could call our kids,” she said for emphasis. “When we asked about it, the White shirt (Supervisor) said everyone called out; there aren’t any C/Os for the blocks, so you’re stuck like Chuck. We were all heartbroken; many of the women spent the whole day sobbing.”
A severe lack of staffing on weekends, holidays, and Eagles games has been consistently reported by the PA Prisons Society and the court-appointed Special Monitor in each of their reports.
An incarcerated woman explained that individual staff on duty decide whether outdoor access occurs during a particular shift, saying, “I was out this morning, but they do that shit when the Monitors come, but otherwise, it’s up in the air?”
“I didn’t get to go out to the yard at any point while I was at PICC,” said Chambers. “The only exercise I could get was walking around that little eight by ten-foot cell, and I got no sun at all.”
According to a report by the PA Prison Society, three women in the general population faced difficulty accessing medical care, even after making multiple requests and having serious needs. One woman said she had “recently miscarried, and I’m still waiting a month to see MD.”
A woman in restricted housing said that she had submitted “over 20 sick call slips and just saw the MD yesterday.” Another said, “I sent slips a month ago and still haven’t heard back.”
One woman said, “They are horrible. I waited at least a month and a half to see a doctor.” Another woman with endometriosis noted that she had requested to see healthcare staff two weeks ago and has still not been seen.
“I put in several sick calls because I’m allergic to wool,” said Chambers. “I had to wrap myself in the wool blanket they gave me because it was so cold, and I developed a rash all over my back. All I needed was some hydrocortisone and a different blanket. Instead, they chose to ignore me and leave me to suffer.”
“There was a pregnant girl on our tear; she was about six months along and having cramps,” she tells me, holding herself low on her belly. “The C/O told her bitch it’s Braxton hicks; get back to your cell. There’s no way she could have known that; it’s sickening that she wouldn’t get her help, then sat there and talked to her like a dog. No one deserves that.”
One woman in restricted housing said, “It is extremely inconsistent when we receive our meds in here. One day we got morning meds at 10 am and then night meds at 5 pm.” Another woman in the unit said that they were missing medication, submitted a slip to address the issue on September 26, and then had to wait “weeks” for the error to be corrected.
Consistent with the male side of the jail, women report the block to be infested with mice, roaches, and other pests.
They report officers not returning to pick up trash from meals served in their cells, sometimes for days at a time.
Across all units, people interviewed reported seeing rodents “every day” and “all the time.” One man said that “roaches are in empty food trays.” A woman said, “There are mice all over.” And another woman in restricted housing said that they had complained about the rodents and were told that it was an old building and there was “nothing they could do,” according to reports.
“The trash has to get piled on the sink, just to keep it off the floor; sometimes they go so long it ends up too much and topples to the floor anyway, ” said Chambers. “Kitchen brings in the food around 5 am, then leaves it out there with the bread open on top of the food until 8 am when they serve breakfast. You’ll get your bread, and it will be hard and stale. Then they’ll feed us dinner at 4 pm, and we’ll get nothing else for the next sixteen hours when they serve breakfast.”
“There was a diabetic woman on our tear; she was banging on the door and would stop,” she said. “So, I yelled down to her to ask what was wrong, and she called back that her sugar was low; there was nothing anyone could do for her. Diabetics are supposed to get snacks at night in case that happens.”
Five women interviewed commented specifically on insufficient access to female hygienic products. One said that they were given three pads for five days. Another said, “Sometimes we have none. They have to go to the other units to find them for us.” One woman said, “We’ve got to beg them for it. Then they give us attitude.”
“Thank God I didn’t get my period while I was there, but I can tell you as a woman, the one roll of toilet paper they give us per week isn’t nearly enough,” said Chambers, also noting that she was only given two panties and one jumpsuit for her entire stay. “I had to wash them in my sink; you know how those sinks are, there’s hardly any water, and all we had was the same bar of soap we’re supposed to wash ourselves with. It’s nasty; no one should live in these horrible unsanitary conditions.”
One woman said that she had been assaulted by a male staff member who had beaten her on her head. Another woman reported unnecessary staff use of mace. “They disrespect us, call us all kinds of homophobic slurs. If you say anything back, they’ll chase you down and spray you and put you in the hole.”
“In September 2022, we received two official visit requests from individuals at PICC reporting staff assault. One came from a man who alleged that a staff member had hit him in the head so hard that he was left feeling lightheaded. Another came from a woman alleging that she had been slammed into a door by C/Os,” according to reports.
The Monitor’s report points to at least 24 excessive uses of force cases that were covered up by the prisons, noting that 100 percent of the cases needed more investigation and training at a minimum, in at least a quarter of the cases reviewed, use of force could have been prevented if officers used de-escalation and verbal commands. At least two of the cases reviewed should have led to the officer being removed from any contact with incarcerated people and criminal charges.
“No one deserves to be treated like this, least of all people’s mothers and daughters; it’s inhuman the way these women are being treated,” said Chambers. “But I understand what my son went through before he died. I feel for all the women I left behind; I wish I could have brought them all home with me.”
Prison officials have consistently denied most of the allegations, except for what can be blamed on staffing shortages. The court-appointed Special Monitor, the PA Prison Society, and a federal court have all verified each of the allegations against the Philadelphia Department of Prisons in various reports over several years.
The victims extend far beyond those hidden behind the walls of the prisons they’re in; they are in our homes, neighborhoods, and schools. There may be one sitting next to you right now.
It’s long past time for Prison leadership to be held accountable for the inhumane treatment of people held in their facilities. Philadelphia must appoint a civilian oversight board with significant power to make necessary changes to the policies and management of Philadelphia prisons.